Chile’s LGBTQ+ street artists see their work defaced with homophobic slurs

SANTIAGO, Chile — It was supposed to be an open-air museum dedicated to Chile’s LGBTQ+ community, but days after the 40-meter (131-foot) mural was completed, vandals defaced the colorful plaques with dozens of homophobic slurs.

Human rights activists say such attacks reflect an increasingly hostile resistance to slow but steady progress toward LGBTQ+ equality in Chile, where conservative attitudes and the Roman Catholic Church still hold sway.

“They are destroying our artistic spaces where we are finally visible,” musician Vale Nein said as he walked the defaced mural in downtown Santiago, pausing occasionally to read the scrawled insults from the vandals.

“It’s symbolic. They kill people too,” said Nein, a transgender man who gave tours of the mural before vandalism forced her cancellation.

The project was built as a place of remembrance, commemorating the place where 10 years ago 24-year-old gay man Daniel Zamudio was tortured and killed in an adjacent park.

The brutality of his murder shocked the nation and prompted the then Conservative government to pass a hate crime law known as the Zamudio Act, which recognizes violence motivated by homophobia but has proved difficult in cases of written and oral abuse.

Almost half of the anti-hate crime cases brought before the courts under the Act have been dismissed.

But the mural honoring Zamudio’s memory proved controversial even within the LGBTQ+ community, with some rights groups accusing the artists of encouraging homophobic attacks by including erotic photographic images on a plaque.

The artists agreed to cover up the photos, but that didn’t stop them from being attacked by vandals.

A portrait of Zamudio is covered in graffiti and a large text demanding access to public health care for trans Chileans is obscured by a scrawl that reads “pedophilia is not art”.

Human rights activists said the attack on the mural reflected the prejudices they face on a daily basis.

“In Chile, people still feel uncomfortable if you’re gay,” said Nicolas Venegas, a gay man who lives a few blocks from the mural.

Lesbian street artist Marcela Paz Pena, who goes by the name Isonauta, said conservative, homophobic groups routinely destroy LGBTQ+ art.

“I draw the word ‘lesbian’ and it’s immediately crossed out,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “They try to silence us and pretend we don’t exist.”

conservative past

Chile has only recently begun to free itself from its conservative Catholic past. It was one of the last countries in the world to legalize divorce in 2004 and maintained a total ban on abortion until 2017.

The recognition of LGBTQ+ rights has also taken a long time.

Zamudio’s law was the first legal protection for the LGBTQ+ community in Chile when it was passed in 2012 shortly after his assassination.

Same-sex civil unions were passed in 2015, followed by a gender identity law in 2018, allowing trans Chileans to legally change their name and gender without the need for court approval or medical screening.

And last year gay marriage and same-sex adoption were approved after a long-fought campaign by LGBTQ+ activists.

Since taking office as the country’s youngest president in March, former student protest leader Gabriel Boric, 36, has openly appointed LGBTQ+ members to his cabinet for the first time in Chilean history.

But those gains come at a price, said Ramon Gomez of Movilh, Chile’s largest LGBTQ+ rights group, pointing to increasingly violent attacks on the community.

While statistics aren’t yet available for early 2022, Gomez said his group has seen an “explosive spike” in reports of violent hate crimes since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted earlier this year.

In March, a trans woman suffered life-threatening injuries after being stabbed in the street, and several gay and lesbian couples were attacked in public places, including restaurants, local media reported.

According to media reports, a lesbian died last month after being set on fire by a homophobic attacker.

Despite the election of left-wing progressive Boric, many Chileans still hold conservative views on personal and family issues.

Runner-up in December’s presidential election was Jose Antonio Kast, a far-right former congressman who received 45% of the vote.

His party firmly opposes gay marriage and same-sex parenthood and considers the traditional, heterosexual family to be the “core of society”.

Still, the vandalism of the mural raised concerns among authorities in the capital.

Erika Montecinos, a lesbian activist recently appointed to head the Santiago municipality’s diversity department, said officials realized they “were unable to protect (LGBTQ+) art.”

She said the community plans to arrange talks between artists and neighborhood committees, which the artists welcomed but said it wouldn’t be enough to stop the vandals.

They say broader anti-hate legislation is needed to protect LGBTQ+ street art, which they say can help encourage greater acceptance.

“It brings everyone a better understanding and a better quality of life… It can inform,” said trans-Indigenous artist Poleo Painemal, who worked on the mural for six days.

Their panel featured trans children playing in a pink room and included an indigenous Wiphala flag with the trans symbol.

Painemal wanted to depict a childhood free from binary gender restrictions, something she believes existed freely in indigenous Mapuche communities before being stigmatized by Catholic colonizers.

Vandals spray-painted a penis on the painting and scrawled the word “disgusting” over the children’s pictures.

“It hurts and makes me angry,” Painemal said.

“(But) it shows that this work is necessary because people still hate us so much and we need to educate them.” –

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